The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time

Such was Einstein’s popularity. As a publicist might say, he was the whole package: distinctive look (untamed hair, rumpled sweater), witty personality (his quips, such as God not playing dice, would live on) and major scientific cred (his papers upended physics). Time magazine named him Person of the Century.

“Einstein remains the last, and perhaps only, physicist ever to become a household name,” says James Overduin, a theoretical physicist at Towson University in Maryland.

Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, Einstein was a precocious child. As a teenager, he wrote a paper on magnetic fields. (Einstein never actually failed math, contrary to popular lore.) He married twice, the second time to his first cousin, Elsa Löwenthal. The marriage lasted until her death in 1936.

As a scientist, Einstein’s watershed year was 1905, when he was working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, having failed to attain an academic position after earning his doctorate. That year he published his four most important papers. One of them described the relationship between matter and energy, neatly summarized E = mc2.

Other papers that year were on Brownian motion, suggesting the existence of molecules and atoms, and the photoelectric effect, showing that light is made of particles later called photons. His fourth paper, about special relativity, explained that space and time are interwoven, a shocking idea now considered a foundational principle of astronomy.

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